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Organic materials promise biodegradable electronics

08 June, 2012

James Cook University postgraduate researcher Katia Bazaka has received a national award for her research into novel organic materials for high-tech applications.

The Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE) Gold Medal is awarded for excellence in research, based on publications over the past five years which acknowledge AINSE support.

Dr Bazaka, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in JCU’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, recently completed her PhD cum laude under the supervision of Associate Professor Mohan Jacob.

Her postgraduate research looked at fabricating thin layers, typically less than 100nm, from a variety of organic and synthetic sources by means of plasma polymerisation.

"Polymerisation is a chemical process in which several smaller units (monomers) are bonded together to form a polymer, a larger molecule with a distinct set of properties." Dr Bazaka said.

Even materials not commonly associated with polymerisation can be transformed from liquid or gaseous forms into thin, solid films with multitude of potential applications, from flexible electronics to biomedical devices.

"Take tea tree oil, for example, the same one you can find at any pharmacy. It is known for its medicinal properties, and is commonly used as an antiseptic agent and in aromatherapy," Dr Bazaka said.

"Using plasma polymerisation, this liquid oil can be converted into solid, stable thin films less than one micrometre in thickness.

"The resultant material is an excellent candidate for integration into organic electronic devices, the backbone of low-cost, large flexible electronic products and biodegradable electronics."

Another attractive property of plasma polymerisation is that the process allows for low-temperature modification of surfaces.

"By taking advantage of this property, the scientists can avoid having to think of new materials, a very costly and time consuming exercise.," Dr Bazaka said.

"Instead, a commercially available material can be modified with the new surface. A relatively simple transformation, it can transport the old macroscopic material into a whole new world of nanomaterials, with their unique and exciting properties."

Dr Bazaka said that the research had found that certain processing conditions allowed for the retention of valuable antibacterial properties of tea tree oil within the solid film.

"Coating the surface of a medical implant with a thin layer of such nanostructured polymer would not only enhance the implant’s biocompatibility, but also limit colonisation of the implant by harmful pathogenic bacteria.

"This is a particularly important factor, given the rise in antibiotic-resistant pathogens. These polymers would also have potential applications as materials for cell culturing and tissue engineering."

Being at the boundary of traditional disciplines of Physics and Chemistry, Materials Engineering, Electronics, and Biomedical Sciences, Dr Bazaka’s research has attracted support from leading researchers within these fields, both in Australia and internationally.

Dr Bazaka said that Associate Professor Jacob’s leadership in Materials Engineering research brought together many Materials Scientists within JCU, providing her with the opportunity to work closely with experts in many scientific fields, including Professor Natkunam Ketheesan from JCU’s School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences.

Associate Professor Jacob said that Dr Bazaka was a promising young scientist who has already received several awards for her PhD project, reflecting a very high level of innovative thinking and aptitude in advanced technology.

The Gold Medal from AINSE is the latest of Dr Bazaka’s awards which include the Inaugural Advanced Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre Student Prize for JCU in 2011, the Science and Innovation Award for Young People in Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry (2009), the Endeavour Research Fellowship (2010), and the Queensland Government Smart Women - Smart State Award (2008).

Associate Professor Jacob said that Dr Bazaka’s background in Physical and Biomedical Electronics and Microbiology provided her with the right combination of skills to engage in such a multidisciplinary and challenging project.

"She is also very committed to communicating her results to the international scientific community. Since commencing her PhD in 2008, Dr Bazaka has published more than 20 articles in reputable journals, an exceptional track record for a researcher at her career stage," he said.

Both Dr Bazaka and Associate Professor Jacob agreed that JCU provided just the right kind of environment to conduct a successful postgraduate research project.

"JCU is big enough to have all the right equipment to do high quality research, yet it is small enough to make you feel comfortable - as a person and not just a student number," Dr Bazaka said.

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